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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Twelve)

Dante followed the soft rumble of conversation coming from the formal dining room of the compound's mansion at street level. He and Chase had arrived at the Order's headquarters a few minutes before, after securing the scene at the nightclub and doing a further comb of the area for signs of trouble. Now Chase was in the tech lab below, logged on to the Darkhaven computers, making his report of the night's events.

Dante had his own report to make as well, one that definitely wasn't going to win him any attaboys with the formidable leader of the warriors.

He found Lucan seated at the head of the long, elegantly set table in the candlelit dining room. The warrior was dressed for combat, as though he had only recently returned from patrol himself. From beneath his black leather jacket, an array of weapons glinted, giving the impressive Gen One male an even greater aura of danger and command than what normally shrouded him.

His Breedmate didn't seem to mind his hard edges. Gabrielle sat across Lucan's lap, her head resting lovingly on his shoulder while she spoke across the table to Gideon and his mate, Savannah. Whatever she'd said made the others laugh, including Lucan, whose humor had been rare to nonexistent before the arrival of the beautiful human female at the compound. The warrior smiled, stroking her ginger-hued hair as gently as he might a kitten, a gesture that seemed to have become automatic in the short few months since the pair had been blood-bonded and mated.

Lucan had it bad for his woman, and he didn't seem to give a damn for trying to pretend otherwise.

Even Gideon and Savannah, the other couple in the dining room, looked to be head over heels in love with each other. It was a fact that Dante hadn't ever questioned in the thirty-plus years they'd been together but hadn't really taken pointed notice of until this moment either. Seated together at the table, Gideon and his mate held hands, his thumb idly stroking the buttery brown skin of her long, tapered fingers. Savannah's dark cocoa eyes were soft when she gazed at her man, filled with a quiet joy that said there was nowhere else she'd rather be than at his side.

Was this what it meant to be blood-bonded to someone? Dante wondered.

Was this what he'd been denying himself all these long years?

The feeling struck him hard, from out of nowhere. He had forgotten what true love looked like, it had been so long since he'd paused to notice it. His parents had known a deep bond with each other. They had set an example for him that seemed untouchable, more than he could ever hope for. More than he had ever dared to imagine. Why should he, when death could take it all away in an instant? Death hadn't spared either one of them. He didn't want to feel that kind of pain, or bring it onto another.

Dante watched the two couples in the dining room, struck by the sense of intimacy–the deep and easy sense of family. It was so overpowering that he had the sudden, strong urge to back away and forget he'd been there at all. Screw his report of what went down tonight. It could wait until the other warriors came in from patrol too.

"You plan on standing in the hallway all night, or are you coming in?"

Shit.

So much for getting the hell out of there unnoticed. Lucan, among the most powerful of the Breed, had probably sensed Dante's presence in the mansion before he'd even come off the elevator from the compound below.

"What's going on?" Lucan asked as Dante reluctantly strode inside. "We got trouble out there?"

"It's not good news, unfortunately." Dante shoved his hands into his coat pockets and leaned a shoulder against the wainscoted wall of the dining room. "Harvard and I had front-row seats tonight for a Crimson deal gone bad. A kid out of the local Darkhaven had a little more than he could handle, evidently. He went into Bloodlust at a dance club downtown, attacked a human, and nearly tore her throat open in front of a couple hundred witnesses."

"Jesus," Lucan hissed, his jaw clamped tight. Gabrielle slid off his lap, giving her mate the freedom to stand up and begin a hard pace. "Tell me you were able to avert that disaster."

Dante nodded. "I peeled him off the woman before he could hurt her, but the kid was in bad shape. He'd turned, Lucan, just like that. By the time I hauled him out of the place, he was full-on Rogue. I took him behind the club and smoked him."

"How awful," Gabrielle said, her fine brows pinched. Gideon's mate gestured to the bite wound on Dante's arm, which had nearly stopped bleeding. "Are you all right?" Savannah asked. "Looks like you and your coat could both use a few stitches."

Dante shrugged, feeling awkward for all the feminine concern. "It's nothing; I'm fine. Harvard's a little shook up, though. I'd sent him after the dealer, and he came back around just as I was finishing the job in the alley. I thought he was going to lose it seeing the Rogue go into cellular meltdown, but he managed to hold his shit together."

"And the dealer?" Lucan prompted grimly.

"Got away from us. But I got a good look at him, and I think I know how to find him."

"Good. That's your new priority one."

A digital trill punctuated Lucan's order, the sound coming from the cell phone on the table near Gideon. The vampire reached for the device and flipped it open. "It's Niko," he said as he clicked on to the call. "Yeah, buddy."

The conversation was short and concise. "He's on his way down to the compound," Gideon told the others. "He took out a Crimson eater who'd gone Rogue tonight too. He says Tegan's tally was at three the last time they touched base a couple of hours ago."

"Son of a bitch," Dante growled.

"What's going on out there, baby?" Savannah asked Gideon, her look of concern echoed in Gabrielle' s eyes as well. "Is it some kind of accident that this drug is turning vampires into Rogues, or is it something worse than that?"

"We don't know yet," Gideon answered, his tone grave but honest.

Lucan halted his pacing, crossing his arms over his chest. "But we need to find out quick, and I mean quick as in yesterday. We need to find that dealer. Find out where the shit is coming from and cut the supply off at the knees."

Gideon scraped his fingers through his cropped blond hair. "You want to hear an ugly scenario? Let's say you're a megalomaniac vampire on a quest for world domination. You start growing your army of Rogues, only to be thwarted when your headquarters is blown into the next century by your enemies. You run away with your tail between your legs, but you're still alive. You're pissed off. And let's not forget, you're still a dangerous lunatic."

On the other side of the dining room, Lucan exhaled a vicious curse. As they all knew, Gideon was talking about Lucan's own kin, a Gen One vampire who was at one time a warrior himself and long presumed dead. It wasn't until the past summer, when the Order routed a growing faction of Rogues, that they'd discovered Lucan's brother was still alive.

Alive and well, and fashioning himself as the self-appointed leader of what had been shaping up to be a massive Rogue uprising. What could still be, considering that Marek had managed to elude the assault that took out his fledgling army and their base of operations.

"My brother is many things," Lucan said thoughtfully, "but I assure you, he is utterly sane. Marek has a plan. Wherever he escaped to, we can be sure that he is working on that plan. Whatever he's up to, he means to see it through."

"Which means he needs to rebuild his numbers and build them fast," Gideon said. "Since it takes time and a lot of bad luck for a Breed vampire to go Rogue on his own, perhaps Marek has started looking for a way to give his recruiting efforts a little boost–"

"Crimson would make a hell of a draft card," Dante interjected.

Gideon shot him a sober look. "I shudder to think what Marek could do with the drug if it went global. We wouldn't be able to contain an epidemic of Breed civilians suddenly turning Rogue on Crimson. It would be complete anarchy all over the world."

While Dante hated to consider that Gideon's speculations might be right, he had to admit he'd been having similar thoughts himself. And the idea that Tess's boyfriend was involved–that Tess herself might have anything at all to do with the problem Crimson was posing for the Breed–made his blood run cold in his veins.

Could Tess know anything about this? Could she be involved in some way, maybe aiding her boyfriend with pharming supplies from her clinic? Did either one of them realize what Crimson was capable of? Worse still, would either of them care, once they learned the truth: that vampires were walking among humankind and had been for thousands of years? Maybe the idea of a few dead bloodsuckers–or the entire race–wouldn't seem like such a bad thing from a human's perspective.

Dante needed to know what Tess's role in this situation was, if any, but he wasn't about to put her in the crosshairs of a Breed war until he found out that truth for himself. And there was a mercenary part of him that wasn't at all opposed to getting close to Tess in order to get close to her scumbag boyfriend. Close enough to kill the bastard, if need be.

Until then, he just hoped the Order could clamp a lid on the Crimson problem before things escalated any further out of control.

"Hi, Ben. It's me." Tess closed her eyes, sank her forehead into her hand, and let out a sigh. "Look, I know it's late to be calling, but I wanted you to know that I really hate the way we left things earlier tonight. I wish you had stayed and let me explain. You're my friend, Ben, and I've never wanted to hurt –"

A piercing beeeeep sliced into Tess's ear as Ben's answering machine cut her off. She hung up the phone and settled back on her sofa.

Maybe it was just as well that she didn't get a chance to finish. She was rambling anyway, too wired to sleep, even though it was almost midnight and her shift at the clinic would be starting in roughly six hours. She was awake, unnerved by the entire evening, and worrying over Ben, whom, she reminded herself again now, was a grown adult and not her responsibility.

She shouldn't worry, but she did.

Aside from Nora, who never met a stranger, Ben was Tess's closest friend. Her only friends, in fact. Without them, she had no one, although she had to admit her solitary way of living was by her own design. She wasn't like other people, not really, and that awareness had always kept her separate. It kept her alone.

Tess looked down at her hands, idly tracing the little birthmark between her right thumb and forefinger. Her hands were her trade, her source of creative outlet as well. When she was younger, back home in Illinois, she used to sculpt when sleep eluded her. She loved the feel of cool clay warming under her fingertips, the smooth stroke of her knife, the slowly emerging beauty that could be coaxed out of a shapeless mound of plaster or resin.

Tonight she had brought out some of her old supplies from the closet in the hallway; the box of tools and half-rendered pieces sat in a cardboard file box on the floor beside her. How often had she retreated into her sculpting to distance herself from her own life? How many times had the clay and knives and awls been her confidante, her best friend, always there for her when she could count on nothing else?

Tess's hands had given her purpose in life, but they were also her curse and the reason she couldn't trust anyone to truly know her.

No one could know what she'd done.

Memories battered the edges of her consciousness–the angry shouts, the tears, the stench of liquor and heated, panting breath blasting across her face. The frantic pumping of her arms and legs as she tried to escape hard, grasping hands. The weight that crushed down upon her in those last few moments before her life tumbled into a chasm of fear and regret.

Tess shoved all of that out of her mind, just as she'd been doing for the past nine years since she'd left her hometown to start her life over again. To try to be normal. To fit in somehow, even if that meant denying who she really was.

Is he breathing? Oh, my God, he's turning blue! What have you done to him, you little bitch?

The words came back so easily, the furious accusations as cutting now as they had been then. This time of year always brought the memories back. Tomorrow–or rather, today, now that it was past midnight–marked the anniversary of when it all went to hell back home. Tess didn't like to remember it, but it was hard not to mark the day, since it was also her birthday. Twenty-six years old, but she still felt like that terrified girl of seventeen.

You're a killer, Teresa Dawn!

Getting up from the sofa, she padded over to the window in her pajamas and lifted the glass, letting the cold night air rush over her. Traffic hummed from the expressway and on the street below, horns honking intermittently, a lone siren wailing in the distance. The chill November wind sawed through the screen, riffling the sheers and drapes.

Look what you've done! You fix this right now, goddamn you!

Tess threw the window wider and stared out into the darkness, letting the night noises cocoon her as they muted the ghosts of her past.

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